"Had that been a man, I don't think he woulda got killed ."
On Oct. 4, 1979, Marilyn McCusker, a roof bolter helper in the Rushton coal mine at Osceola Mills, Pa., was killed when an enormous rock ceiling 30 by 50 feet and a yard think fell on her. She was one of 144 people killed in coal mines that year. She was the first woman to die in an American mine.
Last weekend her friends came to the union hall to watch an hour-long videotape documentary about how a woman got down in the mines in the first place, and the controversy it caused. "We Dig Coal" is by Gerardine Wurzburg and Thomas C. Goodwin. It will be aired on PBS sometime this fall. The filmmakers were worried that people might be angry, for it is a strong picture. But everyone liked it.
Jody Dombroski, a teen-ager, covered her mouth with both hands when she saw herself on the screen. Her father, who declined to appear in the film, shook his head whenever his wife came on with one of her salty remarks. She is famous for them.
Alan McCusker, the widower, almost didn't come, but he decided to after all, and he saw it again the next day. It seemed to ease something for him.
Afterward, everyone stood around drinking free Genesse beer and talking. The hall of Local 1520, UMWA, has a pool table, an upright piano, a large American flag tacked to the wood veneer wall and a small stage. The adjoining room is a bar, the Slovak Club. Everybody drinks beer.
"I wouldn't want my wife to work in a mine. It's just not a place for a woman, that's all ."
When you drive over the mountain, the countryside changes. To the south it is all smiling, lush central Pennsylvania farmland, dotted with massive white Charolais cattle, the rolling fields bordered by elms and maples. But when you approach Philipsburg, the main town in Centre County, four miles north of Osceola Mills, the very trees tattered and sick, some of them as bare as November. Gypsy moths.
The village names have a hardscrabble sound: Spindley City. Tippletown.
Frugality. Buckhorn. Fallen Timber. Coalport. Retort. Down the main streets you see a few fine wooden houses with generous porches and maple-shaded lawns. But many houses are asbestos shingle or tarpaper shingle, and dusty-windowed vacant stores alternate with bargain shops and bars and old-fashioned hardward stores downtown.
Philipsburg was always an industrial town. Henry Philips, an Englishman from Manchester, bought 173,000 acres here at 2 cents an acre in 1796, put up sawmills and grist mills, started a village the following year, and a foundry soon after that. The first screw factory in the country was built here in 1821. But it was 28 miles from the new Pennsylvania Canal. Literally, Philipsburg missed the boat.
In 1819 some hunters found black rocks on the ground at a place called Snow Shoe and brought them to the town blacksmith. He burned them. They were high-class bituminous coal. Today the Rushton mine, one of only two deep mines in the county (there are 35 or 40 strip mines) is a captive mine. All its coal goes to Pennsylvania Power and Light, an assured market.
You see coal piled in back yards here. People keep their homes roasting hot in winter: It seems to be a point of pride. A close community. The men work in the mines, the women in the sewing factory. (It manufactures Sammy Davis Jr. line clothes, a small irony, for there are almost no black families here at all.)
On opening day of deer hunting season, the schools close. The mines too, sometimes. Men wear those plastic billed caps and drive pickup trucks. Women, especially the housewives, mostly wear print dresses and talk with wary skepticism about feminism and "libbers."
"I didn't go to the mines to cut somebody's throat, take their job. All I wanted was a job to make a living ."
Marilyn McCusker, Bernice Dombroski and Mary Louise Carsonwere the first, Mary Louise's husband, Him, had emphysema and had to quit after supporting the family for 25 years. At $3 or $4 an hour, the sewing factory didn't bring enough for Mary Louise to support them. So she applied at the mine with the other two.
In the film, the superintendent, Blair Richard, says, "It really alarmed me a little bit and I tried to sweep it under the rug, but it didn't work out that way . . . Personally, I was somewhat opposed to females working in the coal industry underground: Coal mining is very hazardous, very hard work, dark, muddy and wet."
The three applications were held up two months, three months. The women were urged to try another mine 50 miles away. They hired a woman attorney, who took the mine owner to court. They were give X-rays; the doctor said they were all in perfect health. Then world came through: They all had back trouble.
"I called the doctor, 'Hey, what the hell you trying to do to us?'" Dombroski says in the movie. "'Hey, we have a lawsuit at the mine, it wouldn't trouble us at all to have a suit with the medical center. Who you working for, Blair or who?'"
The lawyer threatened to take the X-rays to a specialist in Harrisburg. That did it. They went into the mine in August 1977.
It was three years after they had first applied.
That isn't feminine to me, to be grubby and dirty and walk in slush and mud and gook all day long. I just couldn't do it. I can't believe they're down there doin' it. But they are ."
The work is all done crouching. You learn an ape-like swinging walk, half bent over. The mine is five miles long, produces 2,500 tons a day. It is 16 years old, good for another 15. There are 200 UMWA miners, 43 salaried people. As one of two union mines in Centre County, it pays $11.76 scale.
It seems to be in the middle of an underground river: 9 millions gallons of water are pumped out every day and added to one of those caramel-colored local streams whose name no one remembers.
The men feed the rats their crusts at lunchtime. "They musta got kinda hungrey during the strike," one man muttered."They eat each other then."
The union went out 73 days last winter, worked a week, then went back out to support the construction workers for three more months. They just returned.
"A yellow-hat gets a lot of hassling," said Ed Albright. Yellow-hats are apprentice miners. At 25 he is a seven-year veteran, gets top pay as a mining machine operator. He is 5 feet 6 inches. His biceps and shoulders are huge. Like most people around here, he has always lived in the area. But he would like to be a ranch hand if he had the choice. Sometimes he works the hoot-owl shift (12 to 8 a.m.) for the premium pay.
Some wives were anxious about the shower and bathing arrangements, which are separate. The younger men seem to resent the women more than the older ones.
"They made me beat rock up with a sledgehammer," Mary Louise Carson said. "I know they wanted me out of there, but I stuck it out."
Dombroski: "They gave us the dirty jobs. I had two guys against me. It's hard, when yer tryin.' They threw a rock at my foot and it was all black and blue. I coulda made it rough for 'em but I just brushed it off. I told 'em I was gonna beat 'em up with a hammer."
Once a man made Dombroski switch chores with him. Then he decided he wanted to switch back. "F-- you," she snapped. He left her alone. Once she caught her glove in a ratchet, almost lost two fingers, got a bad cut on her arm and broke two ribs. She finished the shift.
"I worked in the sewing factory," she says in the picture, "in the flying school, the convalescent home, canneries, the cigar factory. My dad was a coal miner and my mom did factory work whenever she could, but she was always too busy having another kid. There was nine boys and seven girls. I was the tomboy. We used to play around the tipple, it was kind of exciting."
Carson tried the sewing factory too, but "there was a guy timing you, he made me so neverous I sewed my fingers up three times. The women at the sewing factory thought it was outrageous for a woman to go in the mine . . . and they weren't makin' enough money even to pay for the coal they ere gettin', it was $35 a ton and women were payin' for coal and they had no husband."
Her daughter, Lisa, had urged her to go into nursing, but she didn't feel she had the education for it. Lisa said later, "Well see, I got a chance to go to school and get an education, where she didn't. So I can get a better job than the mine. Hopefully."
A sewing factory woman worker:
"It's too dangerous. Women don't have the strength anyhow. And this equal rights business, you know, they're just trying to make a big thing . . . You'd never get me in there."
"You know, not every man can be a miner neither. I know men hired here didn't last a day. I think it takes a certain breed of people to be coal miners, and a certain breed of women."
Marilyn McCusker was working in the mine because her husband, a carpenter, wanted to build a new home for them. He didn't mind her being the "head of household" or his friends making remarks. He had his goal. "That was the whole idea, that we'd break out of the old mold . . . but she'd do her work in the mine and come home and still clean and do the laundry and cook the big Sunday meal, the whole works."
Before she went there, he said, she didn't even know what coal looked like. The first day she came back radiant. "Doesn't it bother you to think you got a mountain over your head?" he asked. "I don't even think about that," she replied.
That last day, she told him she wasn't going to work overtime because she wanted to watch the Pirates in a play-off game. "I'll be home to watch the ball game," she said. The film describes what happened.
Harry Koptchak: "She wasn't my regular helper but came as a replacement. I started bolting down through the split. . . It was gettin' pretty close to quittin' time. I backed the machine out. She said, 'Harry, it's starting to dribble up here.' So I went up to look and when I looked it was like a tidal wave comin' down, it was cavin', it was comin' right down over her. . . I started to run toward the machine but seen I couldn't make it, started to run the other way, thought I was dead. The heat left my body and I just took a dive and landed on my elbows and knees and started crawling out of there."
When the dust settled he and the others went back. "We could see her layn' under the rock and she moved a little bit, moved her hand like this, then started quivering like a deer when you shoot it. She was dead then."
Koptchak's father was a coal miner, and his grandfather, and all his uncles.
His father was killed in the same kind of rockfall. After that happened, the company put Harry to work in the same section in the same job. It's customary.
He often sat with Marilyn on the trolleys down into the mine. "We were the best of friends," he said. But he never did approve of women coal miners. t"Their reactions aren't fast enough, they're not coordinated." As for his own wife, Jane, who works at home with the four children, "I wouldn't put her through it. If she went down there I wouldn't respect her. I'd lose all my respect for her."
After the accident, which still casts a pall over the community, people thought the other two women would quit working underground. But they didn't.
Today there are seven women miners at Rushton.